HOLIDAY HORROR CHALLENGE WINNER
The table was set. Two plates, china, with two long stemmed glasses, crystal, laid out perfectly on opposing ends of a long mahogany dining table. At the center of the table was a large bouquet of poinsettias with cranberries on branches. The cranberries were plastic-fake but the poinsettias were real and deep red.
The room was dark and decorated in even darker crimson and lush greens. Candles with long taper ends sat about the room, glowing and flickering with Christmastime amber, setting off the room in a festive mood. A phonograph record was playing, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and Gregory hummed along with it as he set the table for the Christmas eve dinner.
The house was quiet and calm and beautiful.
He had spent all day cooking and most of the day before. He roasted a turkey and glazed a ham. He slow roasted lamb and made a cream corn casserole that came from his grandmother’s old world recipes that had been handed down from generation to generation. His candied yams, for some unknown reason didn’t work out the way he had planned. They were stringy and the marshmallows had completely melted away so he threw them out and had to do them again. This second time he watched them with a eagle’s eye and they came out steamy and gooey.
There was wassail and spiked eggnog, mulled wine and hot cocoa with miniature marshmallows floating on the top. The long dining room table was void of chairs save for two placed at either end along with place settings, forks, spoons and glasses. Off to the right an ancient looking grandfather clock ticked its way toward midnight. And midnight was coming too quick. On the other side of the room, in the corner stood a majestic Christmas tree decorated in strings of cranberries, glass blown balls and lit candles delicately perched on its wide spread branches.
Secure with the way his table was set and happy with the amount of food decked out over the table, Gregory changed into his striped pajamas and headed off to bed.
And waited with intermittent moments of dreamless sleep.
He awoke with a start, a start with a question lingering in the wave of dream and awake. Did he leave the front door unlocked? Was he supposed to unlock the front door? Gregory couldn’t remember he was focused on the dinner and not the door. A sound came from downstairs, a creaking, long eerie sound and then came a solid click. The front door was unlocked and open. He had left it unlocked. He rolled out of bed, slipped on his velvet red robe that was resting on a nearby chair and snuck downstairs, cautiously and calm.
At the landing, he looked down into the dining room to see the room proper. There was a clear view of the long dining room table with all the dishes still laid out. He took a step to go back upstairs disgusted at the false alarm when he heard the sounds of a chair being pulled back. The scratching, creaking sound of wood dragged over a hardwood floor. The sound stopped as someone sat down.
Something started eating.
Tiptoeing down the stairs, a crisp chill enveloping the room, much colder than he thought it was outside, Gregory saw the man at the table.
A thin gaunt thing of a man with pale green tinged skin. It reminded him of something his mother would say years ago when he was a child, “He looked green around the gills.” The gaunt thing’s hair was thin and ash-white with a widow’s peak crowning its head. Sunken cheeks angling to thin, dry lips with eyes, dark and hollow. He wore a suit of old Dickensian design, with a high collar, puffy shirt and flock suit of dark gray.
He sat at the head of the table, soundlessly surveying the spread before him and did not move. But a sound that one would confuse with breathing came from his mouth, a soft grunt that could have been a simple expulsion of air out his dry, pale lips. His hands rested on the red velvety tablecloth, curled fingers with long fingernails jutting out the tips, ready to pounce.
To the right there was a constant popping, crackling sound as the record player continued to turn without retracting the needle as it usual did. The sound was crisp and alien as the gaunt thing stared at nothing as Gregory stared at the gaunt man. For a second, Gregory contemplated why the record player hadn’t sent the needle arm back to its resting place and shut off the machine but he had other things occupying his mind. He stepped into the dining room, tip-toed really, and set the record needle back on the record player.
Gregory stood at the head of the table and watched. Quickly, cutting the tension and the night like a saber, the grandfather clock struck the midnight hour chiming loud and harsh in the Christmas eve night air. Candles flickered in response. A swelling of wild winter wind rolled outside the windows flanking the dining hall. It was officially Christmas.
And with that the gaunt man began to eat.
He reached out with long clawed fingers and snatched a roll from a basket of Parker House rolls sitting in front of him. Ripping into the flesh of the roll, he simultaneously reached out for a turkey leg, ripping it off with animal voracity. Grease dripped down his gray chin in long rivulets onto his lapel of his long frock coat. He ate and ate taking little to no notice of Gregory who by this time had sat down at the head of the table pushing food closer to the gaunt so he was never without food.
“I didn’t think the legends were true, few are, yet here you sit,” Gregory said to the gaunt. He had waited what felt like hours to speak to him as he ate the Christmas eve feast. Two hours into the feast, the gaunt thing had eaten the roasted turkey, honey glazed ham, every Parker House roll, figgy pudding, a plate of Turkish delight and drank what amounted to a full bottle of mulled spice wine. Gregory had no time to waste as the gaunt man ate looking more alert, more full, more … human. It was then that he spoke to him. The gaunt man didn’t speak just gazed about the room suspiciously between bites of gingerbread cookies and spooning braised carrots into his crack-lipped mouth.
“Did you do it?” Gregory said quickly. “I have you until sunrise Christmas morning so did you do it?” Gregory’s voice was weak and shrill as he announced the accusation to the dead man at the dinner table.
The house was empty save for the two of them and the question boomed too loud over the half eaten Christmas dinner. The gaunt thing never spoke only shoved more food stuffs through his sharp broken teeth. “All the legends have rules: Vampires burn in sunlight. Bottled genies grant extravagant wishes and on Christmas eve night the dead can come home to share a warm hearth and good yuletide dinner. Rules of the whatever powers that be state that you must eat all the food on the table and cannot leave until the cock crows on the holiest of days.”
The gaunt ate undisturbed.
Gregory pushed a plate of olives and green bean casserole closer to the thing. After a fashion, Gregory continued, “Are you enjoying it? My mother was a fine cook… and so is her son.” The gaunt was fatter now. Now, he could no longer be called a gaunt for he had filled out as he consumed the food. His eyes had lost their dull. His cheeks were beginning to fill out and the color was coming back to his flesh.
The thing had finished the green bean casserole, the carrots, three pies and all the cookies. And in that time he had forgotten life but remembered only the food and that he had to be there until it had all been devoured. “Do you remember her? My mother? Do you remember how she died? It was Christmas eve. A Christmas eve long ago. I was away at school and it was just her here upstairs in bed. Well, not just her, you were here too, weren’t you, father?”
The gaunt had a mouthful of green Jello mold. The very same type of green Jello mold Gregory’s mother had made year after year. It was her signature dish and the irony was not lost Gregory. The thing was eating the very dish that his mother was known for during the holidays. The thing that killed his mother. The thing he once called his father. “They say she had a heart attack. That she was getting out of bed to get her pills, pills that were put too high on the shelf for her to reach. But I don’t believe it. Where were you when she needed you? Downstairs drowning your cares with Jim Beam and the boys.”
The gaunt finished the green Jello mold shaped like a wreath and was moving on to richer fare like the succulent prime rib. Whatever was on the table was getting devoured, speech or no speech. “Hell, when the paramedics came they found you fast asleep in your recliner covered in booze,” Gregory said, anger welling up inside him like a balloon on its way to popping. “You let her die, old man. And when you died three years later, no one cared. You left me holding the bag loaded with debt and all its trimmings. And now that I have you here in person, Dad, I want the truth, did you do it on purpose?”
The gaunt thing that was once his father, fat and lazy and go-for-nothing had finally reached the end of the line. Dawn was approaching and the grandfather clock sounded making it official. Six in the morning and as if by magic, the gaunt pushed back the high backed chair and excused himself from the table. “It’s not time,” Gregory said in quick desperation. “These aren’t the rules. You can’t leave until daybreak. It’s too early. Rules are rules!” He threw himself at the gaunt wrapping his wiry thin fingers around the upturned collar of the Gaunt’s dusty frock. “Tell me, damn you! Confess you lousy, good-for-nothing!” His arms were wrapped around the thing squeezing it, anger holding them together. In a mass of arms and body, whipped up in a frenzy of desperation, Gregory and the gaunt fell backward onto the long wooden table. And as he stared at the thing, Gregory quickly realized that his father had always had blue eyes, bright as the morning sky, the kind of eyes that made women swoon and fall hard for such a hard man.
The thing, this creature of legend had brown eyes.
And where was the scar his father had as a child when he ran into a barbed wire fence hidden in brambles near their country home? It should have been on his cheek but the gaunt man’s cheek was clean and smooth. “Father?” Gregory said.
The thing just stared at him as they both were tangled together on that table, empty now save for the two of them.
But it was Christmas time, time for strange things and customs. Rules are rules and the table must be cleared of food so the gaunt man could return to his grave.
The gaunt visitor opened his mouth wide filled with broken teeth and breath smelling like cinnamon and cloves, dirt and rot, and began to finish what he started.
The gaunt man ate.